The Culture First Look

Outcry over alleged abuse in ‘A Dog’s Purpose.’ Do live animals have a place in film?

Animal-rights activists have shut down Ringling Bros. Circus and the orca shows at SeaWorld. Now, a leaked video has put the film industry in their crosshairs.

Dennis Quaid with a dog, voiced by Josh Gad, appears in a scene from 'A Dog's Purpose.' A spokesman for American Humane said on Jan. 18, 2017 that it has suspended its safety representative who worked on the set of the film when a frightened German Shepherd, not shown, was forced into a churning pool of water.
Joe Lederer/Universal Pictures/AP | Caption

When fast-moving water on the set of "A Dog’s Purpose" gave Hercules pause, a trainer decided to wrestle the German Shepherd into a pool. A crew member encouraged him to keep pushing. "He ain’t gonna calm down until he gets in the water. You just gotta throw him in," says an off-camera voice in footage that caught the moment.

The video, from a November 2015 shoot, was leaked by the news entertainment site TMZ on Wednesday, sparking outrage on social media. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has urged audiences to boycott the film.

For some, the treatment of Hercules (one of at least five dogs used in the role) adds fuel to recent debates on the ethics of using animals for entertainment and educational purposes. Last February, The Christian Science Monitor reported that scientists disagreed over the merits of confining animals for conservation. But in the entertainment sector, public opinion has come down hard against the practice. On Sunday, the Ringling Bros. circus announced that it would hold its last performance this year (a year ago, the circus said it would stop using elephants in its show), prompting celebration from animal-rights groups, who also pressured SeaWorld San Diego to cancel its orca show.

With large swaths of the American public no longer looking kindly on the use of animals for entertainment, the video of Hercules under duress could increase pressure on the movie industry's use of live animals.

In a statement given to People magazine, Amblin Entertainment, the production company for "A Dog’s Purpose," and Universal Pictures, its distributor, maintained that they "followed rigorous protocols to foster an ethical and safe environment for the animals.... There were several days of rehearsal of the water scenes to ensure Hercules was comfortable with all of the stunts. On the day of the shoot, Hercules did not want to perform the stunt portrayed on the tape so the Amblin production team did not proceed with filming that shot."

But that decision came after a trainer spent 46 seconds trying to wrestle him into the pool, which activists groups such as PETA find unacceptable.

Since 1925, the American Humane Association (AHA) has worked to protect animals in movie shoots, publishing guidelines that a film must meet in order to receive its "No Animals Were Harmed" certification.

An AHA employee was on the set of "A Dog’s Purpose." In its own statement to People, the AHA declared itself "disturbed and concerned" by the video. "When the dog showed signs of resistance to jumping in the water, the scene should have been stopped.... We are placing the safety representative who was on the set on administrative leave immediately and are bringing in an independent third party to conduct an investigation into this matter."

By working with film producers to protect animals, the AHA has taken a more moderate approach than PETA, which wants audiences to boycott "A Dog’s Purpose [and] any other movies that use live animals." 

When activists began to take issue with their practices, both SeaWorld and Ringling Bros. worked to dispel their claims. If the film industry takes a similar approach, it could face an animal-rights community that may be buoyed by recent successes – and public support.

"Society has changed," PETA announced upon Ringling’s closure, "eyes have been opened, people know now who these animals are, and we know it is wrong to capture and exploit them."